Arm hairs floating in batter and dried vomit on the dining room floor are just some of the health hazards inspectors found at the Mandarin Restaurant during six years of inspections.
And after failing to permanently remedy numerous infractions of Alberta's Public Health Act, the Lethbridge restaurant and its owners were finally charged last year, and fined Thursday in Lethbridge provincial court.
Owners Yip Kwok Chew, Xin Kuo Pan, Terry Pan, and Tuan Luc pleaded guilty to four counts under Sec. 73(1) of the PHA for not complying with a health order, and were each fined $5,750. A fifth accused, Lui Guo Zhong, was fined $3,680, while the Mahlew (Mandarin) Restaurant was fined $2,070, for a total of $28,750.
The restaurant and its shareholders were finally charged last year based on about 50 inspections between February 2006 and March 8, 2012, triple the number of inspections typically conducted at restaurants. But in September 2001, after countless warnings and numerous orders to rectify health problems, the health department finally had enough.
"It's the straw that broke the camel's back," said Edmonton prosecutor Robert O'Neill.
O'Neill outlined a long list of health infractions from the storage of raw meat above cooked food and mouse droppings on the floor, to filthy refrigeration units and rotting food debris clogging the dishwasher. Inspectors even found dried vomit on the floor from the previous night, and they saw an employee stirring a five-gallon pail of deep-fry batter with his entire arm, past the elbow.
"Small arm hairs were clearly visible floating on top of the batter," O'Neill said.
Of 11 complaints from customers, several were from food poisoning, and food samples tested revealed the presence of bacillus Cereus, a common food-borne illness often associated with "temperature-abused rice."
Food was being stored on the floor and left out at room temperature for extensive periods of time. Cooked rice was dried on top of hot water tanks, and eggs were left on counters overnight. There were fly infestations, poor refrigeration, inadequate food-preparation training for staff and some food was stored in chemical containers.
O'Neill pointed out that the restaurant occasionally complied with orders to clean the kitchen and make changes, but they were short-lived and subsequent inspections discovered overall poor sanitary conditions. That went on for years until the health department finally lowered the boom.
"These guys qualify for the Slow Learner Award," O'Neill said outside the courthouse.
He noted the health department focuses on education instead of prosecution, but there comes a point when enough is enough.
"It's rare for it to go on so long."
Sean Robison, supervisor for environmental public health in the Lethbridge area, said a shortage of inspectors before 2010 made the job difficult, and it wasn't until more employees were hired after 2010 that there was consistency.
Defence lawyer Art Larson told court his clients always intended to resolve the charges without having a trial, and suggested that, despite the hefty fine, they had already paid the ultimate price because they had to permanently close the restaurant. He added the money to cover the fines has already been placed in a trust account and will be paid by the end of the month.
"It's most unfortunate the owners . . . were unable to get the message," Judge Eric Peterson said as he levied the fines.